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Taichung, Taiwan (AFP) Feb 10, 2013
With his blue stetson and thick grey jacket, Lai Pei-yuan looks like a modern-day cowboy, but rather than raising cattle, he grows trees.
The 57-year-old Taiwanese entrepreneur made his fortune in transportation and property, but his real mission in life is to reinstate at least some of the forests that once covered most of the island.
"It was just a simple idea I had," said Lai, meeting AFP on a hillside near his native Taichung city in central Taiwan. "If I was to safeguard Taiwan, I would have to plant trees."
For the past three decades, Lai has bought and planted thousands of trees every year, often with his own hands.
Today his efforts can be seen in the form of 130 hectares (320 acres) of mountainsides near Taichung covered with 270,000 deep-rooted trees, representing indigenous species such as Taiwan incense cedar and cinnamomum micranthum.
"He's a legendary person," President Ma Ying-jeou said during a recent visit to Taichung, when he met and sipped coffee with Lai. "No one else in Taiwan has planted so many trees."
It is an endeavour that has cost him hundreds of millions of New Taiwan dollars (millions of US dollars), but it has helped him achieve fame as "King of the Trees."
He says he was inspired by seeing how rapid industrialisation laid waste to Taiwan in the post-war era of super-high growth.
"Many, many trees growing in the mountains were cut down and exported," Lai said.
It had begun under Japanese colonial rule from 1895 to 1945, when ancient trees were cut down in the name of progress, a process that continued until the closing years of the 20th century.
Only in 1989 did the Taiwanese authorities ban the logging of primeval forests, but by that time it was almost too late.
The results were devastating. In the course of the 20th century, forest coverage fell from 90 percent to 55 percent, according to one government survey.
Lai nevertheless saw it as an opportunity to build something that would leave a legacy for posterity.
"I had seen how companies prospered and declined. I felt I wanted to do something which could last for generations to come," he said.
Lai began his crusade for the trees when he was about 30, setting out every morning to plant trees on plots of land that he owned. Often his family would only see him after sunset. His children were puzzled.
"When my brother and I were young, we had no idea what Dad was doing. Our impression was that he was on the mountains all the time," his elder son Lai Chien-chung said.
Today Lai Chien-chung sells coffee beans, grown in his father's forests, under the brandname "Coffee & Tree". He also opened his first coffee shop in downtown Taichung last year.
Around 95 percent of the profits from the coffee sales have been used to finance the maintenance of the forests and the planting of trees, Lai Chien-chung said.
To ensure sustainable management of his forests, Lai Pei-yuan pledges no deforestation and sell-off. Nor will he give the forests to his family after his death, he said. They will instead be managed by a non-profit foundation set up by Lai.
Meanwhile, he can take pleasure in the fact that others are following in his footsteps.
Since 2008, Taiwanese individuals, companies and government bodies have jointly planted more than 23,000 hectares of trees, according to Taiwan's forestry bureau as part of President Ma's iTaiwan projects launched in 2009.
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